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Education Reform and All That Noise

This blog follows two closely related posts that are 15 months old:
Now that I am a little more knowledgeable on the subject of secondary and higher education, a few more remarks are in order.

First, Church and Academia (read Universities) are the only two institutions that span over 2000 years of history of our Roman and Catholic civilization.  As I focus on education, I will leave Church alone.  I will also omit the epochal contributions of the early Arab Caliphate universities and Indian schools.  Both contributed invaluably to the rise of Academia in Europe. In particular, Arab schools preserved most of what we know today about ancient Greek philosophy, mathematics and medicine, and greatly added to this knowledge.

Empires, states, emperors, kings, princes, presidents, and governors came and disappeared into the mist of history, but Academia has remained, storing knowledge and preserving intellectual continuity of Europe and - later - all other continents on the Earth.

Forty three European universities had been in continuous operation for up to five centuries predating Columbus; thus, some existed for close to 1,000 years.  The majority of European countries, including Poland, had universities by the year 1500. After 1500, universities began to spread to other countries all over the world.

In comparison, this United States of America dates back to September 17, 1787, or 225 years; the Soviet Union lasted for 70 years; and the Third Reich for 12 years. Texas joined the United States as the 28th state in 1845, only to declare secession from the United States in early 1861. The slave owners and Texas lost, and The University of Texas at Austin was founded in 1883, in the United States again. UT Austin became the fifth-largest single-campus in the nation as of fall 2010, with over 50,000 undergraduate and graduate students and over 24,000 faculty and staff.

Given longevity of Academia, politicians and the various impatient reformers of education operate on much shorter time scales, even when measured with the yardstick of an unbelievably young United States of America.  By the year 1500, the Jagiellonian University in Krakow was as old as UT Austin is today.  And this was 142 years before Galileo died and Shakespeare was born.

So, the short-term reformers of Academia - all of you, who offer such snapshot perspectives - beware!  You can go on and reform ephemeral corporations for better or worse, but Academia is a different beast altogether.   For those of you who think otherwise, Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818) may serve as a reminder of your own transience:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: -Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses' throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. This sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the throne, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica, as "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works."

Please forgive me for this lengthy historical perspective.  Most Americans lack a historical perspective on anything and operate through a series of snapshot decisions.  Snapshots are good, but they miss most details.  And in education the devil is in the details, as Prof. Michael Marder of UT Austin has taught me.

Let me start from the here-and-now, as we are accustomed to in America.  The chart below, added one week after publishing the original blog, shows the 5-year growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment in fourteen developed countries.  Please keep in mind the economic ranking of these countries when we talk about their educational rankings.

The five-year estimates of GDP changes (left) and employment changes (right) in 14 developed countries.  Please note that the high-tax rate, high income redistribution economies that also emphasize education and welfare of children have done significantly better than the Unites States.  Poland is not listed on this chart, but it has been among the fastest growing economies in Europe, if not the fastest one.  This factual observation contradicts the most popular economic views in the United States, and in Texas in particular.  Thank God, Texas' economy has been saved by abundant production of oil and gas. Image source: "Economic Health? It’s Relative," by Eduardo Porter, The New York Times. Published: October 16, 2012

For each of the fourteen countries shown above, growth of employment corresponds almost one-to-one to academic achievement of teenagers, the future leaders of each country's economy.  Note that employment performance in the U.S. falls between those of Italy, Spain and Greece, and corresponds exactly to the overall academic scores in these four countries.  The difference between a semi-decent GDP growth in the U.S. and the poor job creation here is caused by the new jobs going to other, better educated countries, and to the most educated and over-employed people in the U.S.: people like me.  While I make a lot more money in real terms than I did in 1983, I now have effectively two full-time jobs (I work for UT Austin 80 hours per week or more).  When I account for the amount of work I do, my income gain does not look nearly as impressive.  Almost all recent income gains went to a tiny group of people who live off of dividends, not work.

Math test scores of the 15-years old students in several countries with significantly different per capita incomes. When lumped together, the U.S. teenagers place on the 24th - 25th place, among well-ff and low-income peers in other countries.  Image source: Professor Michael Marder, UT Austin, October 8, 2012.

Most everyone knows that in math the U.S. teenagers place 24 - 25th, when compared with peer groups in other generally developed countries.  The prevailing conclusion is that the K-12 school system does not work in the U.S., teachers must be replaced, and more "choices" be given to the youngsters and their parents.  But when one disaggregates the test data by poverty level in school districts, the U.S. students place as well as the comparably affluent peers in the highest-scoring countries.
Poverty determines math test scores more than any other factor. The international math test scores with the U.S. data disaggregated by percentage of free lunch recipients in school districts.   The most affluent Americans (0-10% of free lunch recipients) score as high as their peers in Finland, where the rate of poverty is comparable.  The second group of U.S. teenagers (10-25% of free lunch recipients), scores as well as Germans.   The third U.S. group (25-50% of free lunch recipients) overlays Portugal.  The last two groups of U.S. teenagers (50-75% and 75-100%  of free lunch recipients) are only comparable with those in the poorly-developed countries. Image source: Professor Michael Marder, UT Austin, October 8, 2012.

It now becomes clear that poverty, rather than teacher skills, is the biggest factor in test achievements.  The most affluent American teenagers do as well as Finns or Germans, the two high-scoring countries, where the overall poverty rate is as much as poverty rate in the top 25 percent of U.S. households with teenage children.  The overall math score for the U.S. overlays Portugal and is close to national scores of Italy and Spain.  The bottom half of U.S. teenagers may as well live in the less developed regions of Turkey or Mexico.

One can also disaggregate the U.S. test scores by schools with unionized or non-unionized teachers (no difference), charter or public schools (most charter schools do much worse than comparable public schools), and the quality of school lunch programs for poor children (Texas and Massachusetts, the two extremes of U.S. political system, do best, and the District of Columbia does a little worse than the well-meaning but incompetent California).

Therefore, poverty rate is the only remaining predictor of test performance, and not the teachers or school districts.  The U.S. society is divided into an upper half that bests Portugal and the lower half that does not even live in a developed country.  Such is the sad truth about the U.S. A.D. 2012, but the self-anointed reformers of our schools see anything but poverty as their favorite reasons to disrupt what teachers do.  This ideology-driven selective blindness is our national tragedy. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, Kurt Vonnegut has taught us that poverty in the U.S. is generally regarded as something shameful, an infliction that most would deny in public, and a major factor in segregating conscripts in the WWII U.S. army.  Poverty was the root cause of lack of cohesiveness in some army units as in: "Why do I need to risk my life to save that poor bastard?".  The year was 1945.  Has much changed since then, except that denial grew stronger?  Has similar denial caused a recent presidential candidate to discard 47% of U.S. population as poor, dependent and generally useless?

Now you are ready for my last point: The public universities in the U.S. still regard themselves as catering to a first-world society.  In fact, the top public universities - UT Austin included - cater overwhelmingly to the most affluent families in the U.S. society, minus those who send their children to the Ivy League schools for one reason or another.  If implemented, the idea of a Chevy-like, $10,000 dollar bachelor education in public universities would permanently segregate the U.S. society into the inner-party members and "prols," so aptly described by George Orwell in 1984.  This would be a solution in which I certainly could not participate, as much  - I hope - as most other professors at public universities.

By the way, $10,000 pays for roughly 80 days of tuition and fees in an Ivy League school.  Why don't we ask them to charge 20 times less per student and thus become as "efficient" as some want public schools to be?

I hope that you are not surprised that we want to keep public universities alive, and K-12 children well-fed and watching "Sesame Street." Just imagine what would happen if only the Ivy League graduates ruled our country and brought us yet another Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, bank deregulation and crash, The World Bank, wholesale job outsourcing, corporation "harvesting," elimination of industrial research centers, and other careless destruction of the world around us.

Oh, I forgot, the same Ivy Leaguers run the Harvard School of Business. What does Harvard School of Business say about 1/2 of the U.S. society already living in a de facto third world country? Also, what will we tell the grieving families of our brave soldiers, who died or were wounded fighting for all Americans, but lived and were educated in the third- and fourth-tier America designed and implemented by those who never visit such foreign countries?

P.S. Here is a 9/29/2012 remark by Professor Marder:
Finland is not prosperous compared to the U.S. It is simply a country where after taxes and transfers child poverty is at a low level. One has to trust that the computation has been done correctly. Note that the U.S. is not very anomalous for its level of poverty, but among rich countries it is anomalous for its level of child poverty. Also note that the threshold for poverty in the U.S. is higher in dollar terms than in other countries (poverty is defined as a fraction of average income). I think this can be defended.

When it comes to the long view of history Greece is a contender. Greeks often seem to feel that Europeans have to treat them well because European civilization began there. The Greeks are mistaken. Their history buys them little when Germany wants repayment. Let the universities be warned. Yes, we may have come up with all the ideas that led to all of modern technology and constitute all modern thought. But what have we done LATELY?
My general questions remain:  Is prosperity best defined by the number of dollars we earn? How can a society prosper, when so many of its children live in poverty?   How can we educate these children to their full potential, when they are hungry, often sick, and with little or no family support? To what extent can we blame poverty on the poor?  Do we really want to lump roughly 1/2 of all Americans (47% according to some sources) as poor losers and discard them?  Kurt Vonnegut must be laughing loudly at us from his circle of Heaven.


  1. I’m not sure the affiliating academia with the church strengthens your argument that … well, what is it exactly? That academia shouldn’t be “messed with” by people who are too short-sighted to see how wonderful it has always been? That the hallowed wisdom of those whose lives have been dedicated to academics reigns supreme in deciding what is best practice in educating students? I mean, I can sympathize with the frustration of being told a university should deliver a top-tier education for a bargain-basement price, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of ways that universities could improve their instruction by attending to research in cognitive science and educational psychology. We still have much to learn about how people really learn, and how to best educate them. We can’t just cling to traditions (in religion or academics) because we like them and they seem to work, or because they are convenient. Consider our public school system. It is mostly designed for convenience and efficiency. But something I learned form you is that robust, effective, stable, sustainable systems are not necessarily efficient or convenient.

    You are right that poverty is rarely mentioned as a “cause” of lower academic performance. It’s just a co-morbidity… If you are an educator or politician and you point out that poverty is one of the strongest predictors of academic performance, then you are labeled as an excuse-maker. Maybe that’s fair if you are a teacher. I mean, you’ve agreed to do the job regardless of the economic situation of your students, right? And, unfortunately, movies like Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, and Freedom Writers make trite homilies out of the realities of facing those physically and emotionally starved children every day. It’s never just one class, and you rarely get through to one much less all of them. And you never get away with going astray from the boring, poorly written, ineffective mandated curriculum.

    But what are you proposing is the solution? Eliminate poverty (keep children well-fed)? How do you eliminate poverty without educating the impoverished to advocate for themselves, or at least vote smarter? And what can we really do to stop those who are working (with a lot of financial backing) to completely dismantle public education by privatizing and corporatizing (?) it? There are too many wealthy people in this country who know all too well that if the lower class knew what was being done to them, there’d be a revolution going on.

    If even public universities already mostly cater to the first world, then how does keeping them alive do anything to prevent the permanent segregation of society? Are you saying that to prevent that segregation universities should do a better job of catering to a broader audience? In the same section you seem to imply that to do so would degrade the quality of education for the top tier, and that would be undesirable?

  2. Thank you, Anonymous, for your clear thinking. I have tried to make these main points:

    1. The closure of the American society has already happened. The top public Universities are caught up in the game of emulating the private ones, and are de facto catering to the leftovers of the students, who also apply to the Ivy League schools.

    2. I published my post a couple of days before this thoughtful piece in the New York Times: "The Self Destruction of the Top 1 Percent."

    The author, Chrystia Freeland, states there: "Educational attainment, which created the American middle class, is no longer rising. The super-elite lavishes unlimited resources on its children, while public schools are starved of funding. This is the new Serrata (society's closure, TWP). An elite education is increasingly available only to those already at the top. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enrolled their daughters in an exclusive private school."

    And rightly so, because the District of Columbia has some of the worst run K-12 schools in the nation. In the nation's Capital, La Serrata, or the closure, happened decades ago. Just think of this: Washington has the highest concentration of Ivy school graduates in the nation. These graduates care the least about public education.

    3. The people who argue for a diversion of public universities into the cheap education for the masses, are essentially compiling the definitive edition of the American Serrata Book. The students, who will graduate from such programs will never join the top 1 percent and become elites in this United States of America. This is what I find so revolting about the current proposals of reforming the public schools.

    4. You are asking me for a solution. The word "public" in the public universities already belongs to the Orwellian newspeak. How can a university be public if only 16 percent of its budget is funded by public taxes? The top-tier public universities are already mostly private, and they cater to the best-paying group they can find, those who are qualified but for one reason or another do not go to Ivy League schools.

    My crazy solution would be for our society to devote real resources to public universities, i.e., fund them so that they can remain truly public, and provide the multiple alternative paths of social mobility. We cannot achieve this task by paying $10,000 for the 4-year degrees in engineering, science, writing, poetry, and philosophy.

    Without opening meaningful alternative paths for social mobility, this United States will become a giant decaying Venice. I cringe, because I can already smell the rot and stench.

  3. The Dalai Lama recently posted two salient statements:

    I really feel that some people neglect and overlook compassion because they associate it with religion. Of course, everyone is free to choose whether they pay religion any regard, but to neglect compassion is a mistake because it is the source of our own well-being.

    Education is the proper way to promote compassion and tolerance in society. Compassion and peace of mind bring a sense of confidence that reduce stress and anxiety, whereas anger and hatred come from frustration and undermine our sense of trust. Because of ignorance, many of our problems are our own creation. Education, however, is the instrument that increases our ability to employ our own intelligence.


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